MOSCOW (AP) — Russian authorities have opened a new criminal case against the two closest allies of imprisoned opposition leader Alexei Navalny, the latest in a series of moves to stifle his already embattled team.
The Investigative Committee on Tuesday announced a probe against Leonid Volkov and Ivan Zhdanov, accusing them of raising funds for extremist groups. The charge carries a punishment of up to eight years in prison.
In June, a court outlawed Navalny’s Foundation for Fighting Corruption and a network of his regional offices as extremist organizations. The designation barred people associated with the groups from seeking public office and exposed them to lengthy prison terms.
The foundation suspended its crowdfunding efforts shortly before the court ruling to mitigate the risks for its supporters. Last week, however, Navalny’s team announced it was resuming fundraising through the use of encrypted transactions that bypass the Russian banking system and would allow donors to remain anonymous.
Russian authorities quickly blocked the fundraising website Navalny’s team had launched. The Investigative Committee launched a criminal probe, maintaining that Volkov and Zhdanov sought to continue “illegal activities” of the outlawed organizations.
The two Navalny allies have been the targets of numerous criminal probes in recent years and have left Russia.
Both reacted sarcastically to the news on Tuesday. “Friends, it’s a real problem. I’ve lost count of criminal cases launched against me. I infringed on voting rights, evaded the army (draft), didn’t comply with court rulings, hid money, stole money, laundered money, what else?” Zhdanov wrote on Instagram.
Volkov echoed his sentiment in a Facebook post, saying: “Politics in Russia in 2021 is when you’re in a meeting, your phone starts to blow up from push notifications, questions and calls, you casually think: ‘Oh, probably a new criminal case,’ calmly continue the meeting, then check your messages and it is indeed a new criminal case.”
Navalny, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s most ardent political foe, was arrested in January upon returning from Germany, where he spent five months recovering from a nerve agent poisoning that he blames on the Kremlin — an accusation rejected by Russian officials.
In February, Navalny was ordered to serve 2½ years in prison for violating the terms of a suspended sentence from a 2014 embezzlement conviction that he dismissed as politically motivated.
His arrest and jailing sparked a wave of mass protests that appeared to pose a major challenge to the Kremlin. Authorities responded with mass arrests of demonstrators and the criminal prosecutions of Navalny’s closest associates.
Many have since left Russia, while others were placed under house arrest or other restrictions that prevent them from being involved in political activities.
After labeling Navalny’s foundation and regional offices extremist, Russian authorities blocked some 50 websites run by his team or supporters for allegedly disseminating extremist group propaganda.
Navalny’s allies have linked the intensified crackdown to Russia’s upcoming parliamentary election. The Sept. 19 vote is widely seen as an important part of Putin’s efforts to cement his rule before the country’s 2024 presidential election.
The 68-year-old Russian leader, who has been in power for more than two decades, pushed through constitutional changes last year that would potentially allow him to hold onto power until 2036.
As the vote looms, opposition supporters, independent journalists and human rights activists in Russia face increased government pressure. Russian authorities have declared several independent media outlets and reporters “foreign agents” — a label that implies additional government scrutiny and carries strong pejorative connotations that could discredit the recipients — and targeted prominent investigative journalists with raids.